It was expensive and underpowered, but the Apple Macintosh still changed the world | John Naughton

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Forty years ago this week, on 22 January 1984, a stunning advertising video was screened during the Super Bowl broadcast in the US. It was directed by Ridley Scott and evoked the dystopian atmosphere of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Long lines of grey, shaven zombies march in lockstep through a tunnel into a giant amphitheatre, where they sit in rows gawping up at a screen on which an authoritarian figure is intoning a message. “Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives,” he drones. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology.”

Then the camera turns to a young woman carrying a sledgehammer, hotly pursued by sinister cops in riot gear. Just as Big Brother reaches his peroration, “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!” she hurls the hammer at the big screen, which explodes in a flurry of light and smoke, leaving the zombies open-mouthed in shock. And then comes the payoff, scrolling up the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”

Chutzpah doesn’t come any better than that. January 1984 was full of reflections on Orwell’s novel. And it was a time when the personal computer had been pushed out of the “hobbyist” universe and into the real world by the arrival of the IBM PC. IBM was then the Big Brother of the industry. It made computers for grownups: men in suits, accountants with MBAs, not a ponytail in sight. How could a machine made by an upstart company challenge such an entrenched monopoly?

As the 40th anniversary has approached, the web has been full of reminiscences of people’s first encounter with the Mac. I vividly remember mine and have just exhumed my notes of the day. The location was a stuffy conference suite in a Cambridge hotel, ringed with tables covered in green baize. After an initial spiel by the Apple representatives we were let loose on the machines. “For some unfathomable reason,” I noted, “each had been set up displaying a drawing of a fish. It was, in fact, a MacPaint file. I remember staring at the image, marvelling at the way the scales and fins seemed as clear as if they had been etched on the screen. After a time I picked up courage, clicked on the “lasso” tool and selected a fin with it. The lasso suddenly began to shimmer. I held down the mouse button and moved it gently. The fin began to move across the screen!

Sounds naive, doesn’t it? But it was also a kind of epiphany. I remember thinking this is the way it has to be. I had felt what Douglas Adams described to tech journalist Steven Levy as “that kind of roaring, tingling, floating sensation” that characterised his own first experience of MacPaint. Many others have reported similar epiphanies.

In reality, that first Macintosh was expensive (£5,700 in today’s money), underpowered, with too little memory for the tasks that it could do. It needed a hard disk to offset the fact that it could take only one floppy disk. But with its (relatively, for the time) high-resolution screen it sent a primal message that resonated widely: that computers did not have to just be about lines of green text on a black screen. They could handle graphics. Which meant that they could do layout, illustrations, use different fonts, even something really disruptive like “desktop publishing”. What you saw on the screen was what you got on the printer. And you did not need a PhD in computer science in order to make productive use of it.

Commercially, the Mac was initially a disappointment. But it had a dramatic impact on the world nevertheless. One saw this in companies and organisations all over the place. Executives and office staff had IBM PCs. But the minute you ventured into design and publishing departments, there were Macs (and from 1985, LaserWriter printers) everywhere. And in the end, every personal computer came to use the Wimp interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer) that the Macintosh had, er, borrowed from Xerox Parc researchers and adapted it for a cute little machine. So even if you are using Windows 11, you are still in the interface that the Macintosh popularised.

That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t regularly been cultural warfare between the Macintosh and IBM PC tribes. The Mac has always been a closed system with which one tinkers at one’s peril. The PC, oddly enough, has always been relatively open. This led Umberto Eco, in a memorable essay, to argue that the Macintosh is Catholic and the PC is Protestant. The church of Mac “tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of heaven – the moment in which their document is printed”. The PC, in contrast, “is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation”. So next time you call the IT support guy about a problem with Windows 11, say that you’re a Protestant and you’ll get a sympathetic hearing.

What I’ve been reading

Picture this
The inside story of Josef Koudelka’s career. Transcript of an interview with the author of a “visual biography” of one of the world’s greatest photographers.

Trust me, I’m a banker
Davos duplicity. Robert Reich’s scarifying blogpost on snowbound hypocrisy at the World Economic Forum.

Behind the curtain
Dan Wang’s 2023 letter. One of the highlights of the year by an exceedingly perceptive China-watcher on his own website.

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